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Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India.

Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India. By Matthew R. Sayers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi + 187. $29.95 (paper).

In this concise monograph, Matthew R. Sayers describes the history of ancestor worship in ancient India over a period of more than a thousand years, from the first millennium B.c.E. through the early centuries of the Common Era. Taking as his point of departure the tension between the competing soteriologies of ritual and renunciation, Sayers focuses on ritual action, exploring the development of the paradigmatic rite of ancestor worship (sraddha) on the basis of a wide array of Sanskritic texts. His book makes two broad claims: first, that rites of ancestor worship and discourses about them were fundamental to the development of new modes of religiosity based on Vedic antecedents; and second, that the establishment of a new role for the "religious expert" (p. 69) was decisive in fostering these developments. Sayers' argument has important implications for our understanding of the history of South Asian religions and deserves careful consideration.

Central to the argument is a dynamic "process of integration and synthesis" (p. 55) playing out across textual strata, whereby extra-textual traditions of ancestor worship are gradually incorporated into Brahmanical and Buddhist discourses. In this way, Sayers argues, "both Brahmanical and Buddhist thinkers participate in the transformational construction of a new form of religiosity, often in direct competition with each other" (p. 22). This new religiosity emphasizes religious giving, most notably the act alluded to in the book's title: "feeding the dead." But the dead are not the only recipients of these acts of giving: human specialists vie to earn their livelihood from mediating between the householder and his ancestors. Sayers takes a particular interest in this competition for patronage, reconstructing a "marketplace" (p. 69) of religious expertise that drives the developments in the textual record. Among the most significant outcomes of these developments are the emergence of the sraddha rite as a ritual paradigm in its own right and the construction of a new role for human mediators in the performance of ancestral rites.

After a brief but thorough introduction to Vedic and Buddhist religious cultures and sources, the main argument proceeds according to the relative chronology of the texts. Sayers demonstrates that early Vedic poetic texts (Rgveda and Atharvaveda), though lacking detailed accounts of praxis, clearly attest funerary practices in which offerings are made to the deceased (chapter 1). Elements of a "funerary language" (p. 39) from these early texts anticipate the technical terminology of ancestor worship in subsequent strata, the Brahmanas and Srauta Sutras, which deal with the solemn Vedic rites (srauta). Sayers stresses that this is not grounds for assuming continuity in the form of ancestor worship across strata, but rather an indication that later authors codified their praxis within an inherited framework (p. 39). This observation gets to the heart of the challenges involved in historical engagement with the Vedic corpus, what Christopher Minkowski has called the "diachronic question" (Priesthood in Ancient India: A Study of the Maitravaruna Priest [Vienna: Sammlung de Nobili, 1992: 29]): how to reconcile the apparent continuity of diction and ritual paradigms over many centuries, on the one hand, with the evidence of ongoing change and revision, on the other. Sayers is sensitive to these challenges and skillfully demonstrates throughout his work how the texts' authors innovate while simultaneously conserving traditional modes of authority.

The Brahmanas and Srauta Sutras (chapter 2) present two srauta rites in which offerings are made to the Ancestors (pitr). Sayers regards the pindapitryajna ("rice-ball sacrifice to the Ancestors") as the core rite, pointing to features such as the place and type of offering and manner of wearing the sacred thread that are alien to srauta and hence indicative of a heretofore "extra-textual tradition" (p. 50) of appeasing the dead. He regards the other (pitryajna, "sacrifice to the Ancestors") as reflecting a subsequent integration of the core rite into the prevailing Vedic sacrificial model. This is a signal instance of Sayers' "process of integration and synthesis," representing "the perpetual efforts of the educated religious class ... to integrate religious practice and in the process secure for themselves the privilege to define the tradition ..." (p. 55). This process reaches a culmination of sorts in the Grhya Sutras, which codify the rites of ancestor worship as the Ninth-Day Ancestral Offerings (anvastakya) and the EighthDay Offerings (astaka) (chapters 3 and 4). The latter, frequently called sraddha, is "remarkably similar to the rite described in the Puranas and practiced among contemporary Hindus" (p. 57). Sayers discerns four innovations in the Grhya Sutras that separate these novel codifications from srauta antecedents: the offering of meat; the inclusion of Brahmins as guests to be fed; the claim that these Brahmins represent the Ancestors; and the establishment of the sraddha rite as a paradigm in itself. Sayers places particular emphasis on the role of "professional guest" played by the invited Brahmin, an innovation he ascribes to the authors' desire to carve a place for themselves in the Vedic ritual cycle and "claim new modes of authority" (p. 67). The Brahmin now serves as intermediary between the householder and his ancestors: in contrast to srauta offerings conveyed to the gods through the mouth of the sacred fire, Agni, the sraddha offerings are conveyed to the Ancestors through the Brahmin guest's hand and mouth (p. 77). Sayers regards these innovations as a paradigm shift, a weaving together of the solemn and domestic into a new sacrificial model that remains influential down to the present day. He sees the development of the new paradigm as partly motivated by economic concerns: for example, the requirement for monthly sraddha rites creates a "cycle of ritual dependency" (p. 85), ensuring the livelihood of the Brahmin officiant.

Broadening his scope, Sayers draws on sections of the Pali Canon to sketch the outlines of ancestor worship as reflected in early Buddhist texts (chapter 5). While the Pali passages seldom attend to details of praxis, their authors are familiar with the basic structure and technical terminology of Brahmanical sraddha (Pali saddha), a situation that Sayers attributes to the influence of Brahmanical rites of ancestor worship on Buddhist discourse. Sayers shows that the Buddha, in keeping with a rhetorical pattern found across the Pali Canon, accepts Brahmanical terminology and practices but reinterprets them, in this case casting sraddha in terms of the "morality and benefit of gifting" (p. 91). The other Buddhist text analyzed here is the Petavatthu, literal "Ghost Stories" that feature ancestors as supernatural visitors. In these stories, gifts to the departed, especially food offerings, evoke for Sayers the cultural memory of ancestor worship.

Next Sayers turns his attention to the dharma literature (chapter 6), where ancestor worship figures as a central component of a "ritualist soteriology" (p. 100) that serves as a bulwark against the ideological challenge posed by renunciation. He argues that these authors defend the efficacy of ritual by investing the sraddha rite with the soteriological authority of older Vedic models--for example, by ascribing the full suite of benefits previously associated with solemn rituals, "long life, heaven, fame and prosperity" (p. 105; Baudhayana Dharma Sutra 2.14.1)--to the domestic rites as well. Comparing issues of soteriology in the Pali Canon, Sayers finds that Buddhist texts do not register the same ideological conflict between ritual and renunciation. He points out that the Buddhists nevertheless feel obliged to address the practice of ancestor worship, which lives on among their householder constituency, by reinterpreting the ancestral rites in line with Buddhist ideology.

Having demonstrated how Brahmanical and Buddhist discourses retooled the ancient act of feeding the dead to include a role for a specialized human mediator, Sayers wraps up his argument by examining the nature of this mediation (chapter 7). Looming large is the older Vedic model, in which the sacrificial fire receives the ritualist's offerings to supernatural entities. Sayers demonstrates how Brahmanical and Buddhist discourses build on Vedic antecedents by promoting their own specialists--the Brahmin guests on the one hand, the Buddha or Sarigha on the other--as recipients of these offerings, effectively "marketing themselves as heir to Agni" (p. 131). Brahmins and Buddhists alike are keen to assert their worthiness as mediators, focusing on the learning and character that ensure ritual success and authorize them to define the "proper religious life" (p. 141). In this way, Sayers concludes, discourses on ancestor worship, carried out over centuries and across textual strata, were central to the formation of Buddhism and Classical Hinduism.

Throughout this work, Sayers shows himself to be a philologist in the most expansive sense, very much in the manner of his teacher Patrick Olivelle: he translates and analyzes specific passages with rigor, and at the same time ventures beyond the confines of the texts to consider their wider social, economic, and cultural implications. Given Sayers' interest in economic justification for religious developments, it is surprising that he devotes little space to the history of priestly compensation, from the poet's prize of a thousand cows in the Rgveda to the officiant's fee (daksina) in the srauta milieu. Another area where his argument could be improved concerns the differences that attend the new role for the Brahmin officiant in the emerging ancestral paradigm. Though arguing for a strong discontinuity between srauta and grhya modes of officiating--what he calls the "marginalization of the Vedic priest" (p. 67)--he does not engage literature on Vedic priesthood or delve deeply into the history of the Brahmin's hieratic role. Finally, as Sayers himself admits (p. 40), the scope of his argument prevents him from considering much of the evidence in the context of the history of Vedic "branches" (sakha). The development of any Vedic rite and its patronage was foremost a local phenomenon, negotiated within individual branches by Brahmin families settled in specific locations and following their own variants of shared ritual paradigms. Sayers for the most part glosses over this diversity by focusing on the "lowest common denominator" of ritual (p. 40), although his treatment of branch variations in the Grhya Sutra codifications of the smddha rite is a welcome exception (chapter 4). All the same, Sayers' decision to streamline his presentation in this way is understandable, since immersion in the diversity and minutiae of the Vedic branches could overwhelm the broader arc of his argument.

On the whole, Sayers' history of ancestor worship makes a substantial contribution to the history of South Asian religions, demonstrating in great detail how a new paradigm emerged and how efforts to integrate this paradigm into ideologies and practices exerted a strong and lasting influence. It joins the ranks of philological studies that draw on the Vedic ritual corpus to make bigger arguments about South Asian religiosity (e.g., Stephanie Jamison's Sacrificed WifelSacrificer's Wife, Oxford 1996). Sayers' book is exemplary in the way it engages its Sanskritic sources: attention to integration and synthesis across strata reveals a fundamental strategy of religious discourse during this period, namely, innovation within an inherited framework.

Beyond its bibliography and index, Feeding the Dead contains extensive notes and an appendix citing the relevant texts describing ancestor worship; there is also a useful glossary of Sanskrit terms. One minor quibble: I wish Oxford University Press had been more discerning in its art direction--instead of a photograph from a Hindu wedding ceremony, an image of contemporary sraddha on the cover would have more effectively evoked the book's theme.


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Author:Gerety, Finnian M.M.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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